Happy New Year!
This post was originally inspired by the following tweet:
We have many followers for whom English is not their primary language. To their credit, they are motivated to improve their writing in English. (Before we get too far along, if you want to get better at speaking in English, British English Coach has compiled this comprehensive list of 33 tips.)
Writing is hard for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a native English speaker or an ESL (English as a second language) or EFL (English as a foreign language) student. We offer the following tips that have been proven to work—not just for us but countless people we’ve worked with.
Let’s start with the most important tip of all:
1. WRITE EVERY SINGLE DAY.
Writing has been aptly compared to a muscle that needs to be built through exertion and repetition. Remember when you tried to master spinning a pencil around your thumb? It was hard at first, right? And if you recall, you didn’t get better at it by reading an instruction manual or asking a friend who was really good at it. You ultimately perfected it by trying a hundred times a day.
Writing works in the same way: you don’t get better at it simply by reading writing guides or hiring the most expensive writing tutor with the most prestigious diploma. The only way to improve your writing is by dint of hard work and practice. Fortunately, your daily practice doesn’t have to consist of composing a five-page essay on fungal meiosis. You can write a summary of your day, a review of one of your favorite bands’ music video, or a response to a random writing prompt. (If you want such prompts, Writer’s Digest recently compiled an interesting list.) If you get into the habit of writing daily, your writing muscle will strengthen, thereby enabling you to write better and faster.
DON’T: Say I’ll write for x minutes a day. The clock might say that you’ve spent x minutes, but your paper or computer screen might be completely blank, i.e., it was a waste of time.
DON’T: Say I’ll write when I have something interesting to write about. Even if you cure cancer or discover Atlantis, you’ll find a way to convince yourself that those achievements aren’t interesting enough to write about. Just write.
DO: Say I’ll write at least x sentences, paragraphs, or pages a day. Set a tangible goal that you can’t achieve unless you actually write.
2. BREAK THROUGH THE INEVITABLE WRITER’S BLOCK.
The dreaded blank page plagues people writing in their native language, so writer’s block will be particularly daunting to ESL and EFL students who have the additional burden of “translating” their ideas into English. If you find yourself drawing a complete blank or simply unable to get started, ask yourself trivial questions that don’t require much thinking: What did I eat for lunch today? What made it taste good? What could have made it better? What do I want to eat tomorrow? Start writing by answering those easy questions. Sometimes, all it takes to break through writer’s block is to see text going across the screen or your handwriting filling up a line. During your daily practice, your writing doesn’t have to be inspiring. You’re not trying to start a new literary movement; you’re just working out your writing muscle.
DON’T: Say I’ll start writing after I get over my writer’s block. That is just a convenient excuse to avoid writing. Writer’s block is not like the cold: you don’t get over it by taking a pill, and it doesn’t magically go away.
DO: Get your daily writing started by answering simple, mundane questions instead of waiting for divine inspiration.
3. FIND YOUR MUSE / INSPIRATION.
Muses come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. For us, it comes in the form of a K-pop idol named G-Dragon. Listening to his songs and watching his music videos bring out our creative side. (Not surprisingly, we are listening to a G-Dragon / BIGBANG playlist while writing this post.) Finding a really good muse is difficult, so when you find one, take full advantage of it. In our case, G-Dragon not only inspires creative thinking, but he also often serves as the topic of our writing. A quick look at our Twitter timeline will reveal that he is the protagonist of hundreds of tweets. This is what we tell each other: “When writer’s block is knocking at the door, write (tweet) about G-Dragon.” Your muse can—and should—do the same for you.
If the thought of looking for a muse is too abstract or awkward, try this simple exercise: write letters to your crush. In other words, make your current crush your muse. Whether you end up sending the letters you write is up to you, but writing them will be good for your soul. You’ll be able to release your pent-up feelings and get some inspired, heartfelt writing done at the same time. It’s a classic win-win situation.
DON’T: Say that muses don’t exist or think that you won’t find one.
DO: Keep an open mind, and when you search for a muse, start with your favorite artist, singer, writer, or your current crush.
4. READ A LOT. THEN READ SOME MORE.
We’ve never met a good writer who wasn’t an avid reader. The printed word is an excellent role model for writing. Read novels. Read newspapers. Read nonfiction. Whatever you decide to read, do so with a notebook and a pen. Pay attention to syntax (word order), sentence structure, and diction (word choice). If there are certain sentences that you like for whatever reason, jot them down. Rewrite them in your own words. If you come across a new word that captures your attention, look up what it means—then use it immediately in your own writing. (Start by using the word in your daily writing practice until you feel confident that you can use it properly in essays for school.) Read actively. Don’t do it just to entertain yourself or to pass the time. Remember: your goal is to become a better writer.
DON’T: Read only childish comic books or gossip magazines. They might keep you amused, but they won’t improve your writing much.
DO: Actively read good writing and imitate (not plagiarize!) good phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs. Follow the italicized steps above.
5. GET MORE EYES AND MOUTHS INVOLVED.
Following tips 1-4 faithfully can take you far toward becoming a better writer. However, it’s also helpful to get people you respect and trust involved. First, extra sets of eyes examining your writing for the first time can catch mistakes that you didn’t notice because you’ve been staring at the same writing for so long. Second, good writers can offer suggestions and different ways to revise your writing that you might never have considered on your own. Lastly, learning to receive constructive criticism is a valuable skill. Some people cannot bear to hear their work criticized, so they either refuse to ask others for help or ignore any comments they do receive. Predictably, most of them are average writers who rarely improve.
DON’T: Treat writing as a completely solitary activity. Although you ultimately have to do the writing by yourself, you don’t have to block everyone else out during the process.
DO: Consult your English teachers, older students who are good writers, or writing tutors and get feedback on your writing. See if their comments are accurate; if they are, apply them. Be humble and openminded.
6. IMPROVE YOUR GRAMMAR.
A great story, thesis, or argument won’t be so great if your readers can’t understand what you’re trying to say. Equally bad is if they actually can understand you, but your poor grammar is so distracting that they don’t want to read further. It’s like a movie that has a compelling plot line ruined by terrible dialogue or unrealistic special effects.
So why is this important tip at the bottom of the list? Learning English grammar is a never-ending exercise full of contradictions and inconsistencies. It is a skill that needs to develop with your writing, not before it. Otherwise, you’ll spend all your time memorizing irregular verbs and learning the difference between who and whom, instead of actually writing. So if you’re writing a sentence and you’re not sure if you need to use the subjunctive mood, use Google. If the search results are overwhelming, follow tip #5 and ask someone. Ask us.
Getting better at writing is hard. You will experience your share of failure along the way, but you can do it! Don’t give up!
May 2016 be a year of great writing (or at least much better writing)! 🙏